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British Pie Awards 2024

I was back at the glorious St Mary’s Church in Melton for the British Pie Awards 2024 earlier this week. It has turned into something of an annual pilgrimage, even though it now takes me a good two hours to get there, rather than 15 minutes when I lived in Leicester. Judging pies for this prestigious competition is quite an honour in many ways. There are a lot of commercial interests represented there on all scales. The big names who supply the supermarkets, right down to the smallest independent butchers, pubs and pie shops that make their pies for the local community. It’s hard not to feel the pressure when you are picking the finest, even though the day is jovial and good-natured.

Judging is done blind. We are teamed up into pairs and allotted our category for the day. This year I got beef and cheese. So that was awesome. I probably ate more than I strictly needed to. But there aren’t many people in the food game who don’t have latent glutton tendencies. I’ve been around a fair few of the different classes in previous years, including pork pies, pasties, vegan pies and beef & ale (now reclassified as beef and alcohol as I understand).

British Pie Awards judges are briefed

Steak and Stilton

I massively enjoyed this year not just because steak and Stilton is a delicious combination. There is also a real technical challenge here that warranted extreme caution and careful scrutiny. The cheese is a wildcard. It adds a huge amount of flavour but, in most cases, also a huge amount of salt. Therefore seasoning the filling, and the pastry, within an acceptable parameter asks an awful lot of the chef. Debating the pros and cons of each pie was thus a fascinating endeavour. Our pies didn’t just have Stilton – there were a few with mature cheddar, which can easily be lost. I also enjoyed one example made with Parmesan.

It was surprising that we found about five or six examples, just in my judging pair, that had a filling that was verging on perfection but notably poor pastry. I genuinely hope that the feedback we gave made it clear just *how good* those fillings were and the small tweaks that would be necessary to improve the product. And that leads me to how wonderfully robust the judging process is. Not only are there clear categories for scoring, with well-supported criteria, but judges start off together in their classes judging two pies en masse to calibrate the group and ensure consistency. Then each pie is given feedback on both what we liked and what we felt could be improved. I understand the producers receive these forms so they have the opportunity to build on their work.

Who is the arbiter of flavour?

It’s easy for people to be sceptical about awards. See Max Fletcher’s dissection of Great Taste for Vittles, for example. “Naming an award Great Taste of course begs the question: According to who?” Fletcher writes. And it’s a fair comment. Some award schemes are just money-spinning exercises for PR agencies and event organisers. Some are such niche enterprises that they are essentially irrelevant in terms of the impact they have for the winners, just an annual mutual pat on the back from peer to peer.

The British Pie Awards has been around for some 16 years and it achieves credibility, in my eyes, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the host town, Melton Mowbray, has a fair claim to being the UK pie capital, since it is home to the only PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) pie in the country. The Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association organise the awards and as such, it’s in their best interests to make the competition as watertight as possible, because it reflects directly on their own interests. Melton Mowbray PGI pies are judged as a separate class in their own right, away from the rest of the country’s pork pies.

Secondly, we have to consider the buy-in of the pie-making milieu. While the British Pie Awards aren’t a part of every producer’s annual calendar, with something like 900 entries it does feel like a good representative sample. The press coverage each year is phenomenal, showing the quality of the Awards’ PR even if their social media presence is somewhat lacking. It has prestige and it has reach. And this makes it worth the £30 entry fee.

The British Pie Awards 2024 judging in progress

The British Pie Awards: Pie of Pies

Of course, there is room for criticism, as with any process that is led by sensory experience. There are many, many experts in the room at the judging. Producers, chefs, farmers, journalists, restaurateurs and more. They bring knowledge and technical understanding to the judgement. However, there are also plenty of local officials and sponsors too: there to help cement the competition’s place within the local and national community. Maybe they don’t have any relevant judging experience. However, they do almost certainly have prior form when it comes to eating pies. And I think that’s a pretty important part of ensuring that an award like this is fairly judged. Do the people who have no interest except in tasting delicious things adore this pie? The voice of the pie-eating public has its place here in Melton.

I love that the small business has an equal chance at gold as the big players. It makes me very happy that an award is given to the top young producer every year to encourage newcomers into the profession. Something is reassuring in the fact that the categories are reassessed and evolved each year – welcome to the Fusion Pie class, for example, which has made its debut in 2024.

Trophies at the British Pie Awards

To the victor, the spoils

Middleton-In-Teesdale Fish and Chip Shop won the great Pie of Pies at The British Pie Awards 2024 with their Minted Wensleydale Lamb and Potato Pie. In my category, the winner was The Crown at Asfordby with their signature steak and Stilton pie. This pub is just outside Melton, maybe I will stop in on them during next year’s visit. Luckily I had liked the look of The Crown’s signature pie right from the beginning, so I took a couple of pictures of it as we judged. Mainly because it literally had the word Stilton on it, let’s be honest. It’s a pretty Instagrammable pie. You don’t see words on pies quite as often as you could. But maybe now, we will.

This one stood out to me because of that inviting Stilton crust. It was really unusual in being a hand raised, hot water crust pie. I can’t think of many I’ve seen with that style of crust outside of the pork pie category. And the filling. Oh, so tender. The beef just fell apart under the fork. A rich gravy with a hint of stout enveloped everything in a glossy embrace. And that wonderful, local product, a fine Stilton, brought savoury, salty, earthy flavour to every bite. A king amongst pies, but sadly, not quite the Pie of Pies in 2024.


Laura

Bestselling author and freelance drinks writer. Champion of pubs and breweries. Occasional printmaker.

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